President Trump warns that the U.S. military would be hit hardest by a government shutdown. The president also tweeted Jan. 12 that Democrats in Congress would be “shutting down the military” unless they strike a deal with Republicans that keeps the federal government funded past the end of January.
It’s hard to nail down what Trump is warning about, since he is not especially precise. The president claims at some points that a shutdown would set back one of his priorities — upgrading the military — and at other points that a shutdown means “shutting down the military” or “devastating” it.
The president, with his knack for repetition, has also said or tweeted that “Democrats want to stop paying our troops and government workers” (Jan. 12), that Democrats will “take desperately needed money away from our military” (Jan. 14), that “our military gets hurt very badly” (Jan. 14), that they “want to take money away from our military” (Jan. 15) and that “the biggest loser will be our rapidly rebuilding military” (Jan. 16).
It sounds ominous in any case. But would the military really go AWOL during a shutdown?
When the government runs out of money to fund itself, it goes into shutdown mode — offices close, droves of workers get furloughed and many services go offline. A federal statute, the Antideficiency Act, generally bars agencies from spending money that Congress and the president have not appropriated.
But the law has big exceptions, notably for military and intelligence operations, national security, and emergencies involving “the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Trump and the Defense Department would have broad authority to keep running whatever military operations they deemed necessary.
All active-duty military personnel would keep working in the event of a shutdown. There would be no gap in their pay unless the shutdown lasted past Feb. 1, and otherwise they would continue on the job without getting paid until the shutdown ended or until Congress and the president agreed to cover their costs before it ended. (Note: A previous version of this article said the military would be paid up to Feb. 1.)
The last time the government shut down, in 2013, the military remained on the job and legislation to pay service members during the shutdown was signed by President Barack Obama. The same legislation, called the Pay Our Military Act, was used to bring back nearly 350,000 of the 800,000 civilian personnel who had been furloughed by the Defense Department. Because it was unable to pay death benefits to the families of soldiers killed in action, the Pentagon also contracted with a charity that footed those costs until the government could reimburse it.
Ultimately, it’s up to Trump to decide who stays on the job and who goes during a shutdown, said Stan Collender, an expert on the federal budget at Qorvis MSLGroup.
“Not only can the president decide who or what is an essential activity, the president can change his or her mind anytime,” Collender said. “In the past, every president has exempted the military, for obvious reasons.”
According to a 2015 shutdown contingency plan from the Defense Department, the military’s war operations in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda would continue, “including preparation of forces for deployment into those conflicts.”
Contractors whose work was fully funded would stay on the job. Although the Defense Department would be barred from executing new contracts, it could keep doing so “where delay in contracting would create an imminent risk to the safety of human life or the protection of property, including endangering national security.”
Asked to expand on Trump’s statements, a White House official pointed to comments from the Pentagon’s comptroller, David Norquist, who said, “I cannot emphasize too much how destructive a shutdown is.”
“We’ve talked before about the importance of maintenance on weapons systems and others, but if it’s not an excepted activity, there’ll be work stoppage on many of those maintenance functions,” Norquist said in December. However, Trump or Pentagon officials could designate weapons maintenance as an “excepted activity” under the Antideficiency Act and keep those operations running during a shutdown.
Norquist went on to say that national security efforts would continue during a shutdown. The Pentagon’s top spokesperson, Dana White, separately said, “This department will never shut down.” And Trump himself, in a tweet posted days before the 2013 shutdown, said, “All essential services continue. Don’t believe lies.”
Turning to Trump’s other warning — that a shutdown would endanger his plans to “rebuild” the military — it’s important to keep in mind that a shutdown does not foreclose pathways in Congress for appropriating more money for military upgrades or lifting what’s called a “sequester,” or automatic cuts, on defense spending that would be triggered by a shutdown.
In remarks to the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Jan. 18, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said that “the clock on the sequester kicks in” if the government shuts down and that “our military is being used as a bargaining chip for completely unrelated items.”
But Ryan added that he was optimistic both parties could strike a deal on increased military spending, and many Democrats have expressed support for the idea.
“The good news is that Congress has made a bipartisan commitment to funding our national defense,” Ryan said. “Republicans and Democrats work together to send a strong national defense bill to the president’s desk, and right now we are actually engaged in good-faith negotiations to make sure that our budget, that our budget cap agreement reflects those commitments.”
The Pinocchio Test
With the threat of a government shutdown looming, Trump repeatedly has warned that the military could be shut down or devastated and that his plans to “rebuild” the armed forces would be thrown into question. In support of the president’s claims, the White House points to comments from the Pentagon’s comptroller, who said in December that a shutdown could stop maintenance on weapons systems.
A federal law generally bars agencies from continuing to work at taxpayer expense during a shutdown, but that law provides major exceptions for military and intelligence operations, national security and emergencies.
The Defense Department’s most recent contingency plan for a shutdown says all active-duty military personnel would stay on the job, as well as 22 percent of its civilian employees. Moreover, the president has broad authority to decide who stays on the job during a shutdown — an authority that extends to maintenance workers for military weapons systems. Trump himself tweeted in 2013 that the government continues to run “essential services” during a shutdown.
The president also claimed that a shutdown would set back efforts to upgrade the military’s resources and increase defense spending. But those efforts are bipartisan, as Ryan said, and are likely to survive a shutdown.
For sounding alarm bells about things that are not in the offing, Trump earns Three Pinocchios.
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